The manner in which people view themselves has been shown to be an important predictor of their behavior, achievement, and physical and psychological health. There has been a growing trend in recent years to promote a positive self-view in young people through the avoidance of failure. Increasingly, positive reinforcement is provided for merely taking part and trying rather than succeeding or failing, with little regard to the long-term consequences of such practices. To help identify the long-term implications of such practices, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to determine whether keeping children from having to face failure provides them with an accurate view of themselves as they relate to the people around them and others around them. A discussion concerning how, as these children grow and mature, they will likely deal with cognitive dissonance and failure in their lives is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Children and Self-Esteem
It is natural to want to promote a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in children, since these attributes can help them navigate their way through the complex and frequently harsh world around them. When self-esteem is founded on erroneous perceptions of ability, though, the navigation can become more difficult and even impossible. The frustration that can result from this cognitive dissonance can be profound and can lead to a vicious cycle of attempts and failures that could have been avoided if there had been a more accurate perception of self-esteem. Nevertheless, in an effort to prevent the initial frustration that goes hand-in-hand with failure, many parents and educators have cocooned young people from the exigencies of life in the real world in ways that contribute to an inflated sense of self-esteem in young people. The outcomes that can result from this lack of opportunity to fail can become even more severe later in life as these young people attempt to attain a higher education and gain meaningful employment and these issues are discussed further below.
Confronting Failure: Positive or Negative?
It is reasonable to suggest that many people have a sense of self-esteem and self-worth that is contrary to what others might think, but humans may be hard wired for this misperception with an emphasis on the positive rather than the negative. For example, Taylor and Brown report that, "Normal subjects judge positive traits to be overwhelmingly more characteristic of self than negative attributes. Additionally, for most individuals, positive personality information is efficiently processed and easily recalled, whereas negative personality information is poorly processed and difficult to recall" (p. 197). Indeed, it would seem that everyone has an exaggerated sense of self compared to what their abilities and experiences would justify. In this regard, Taylor and Brown (1988) note that a growing body of research indicates that there are mental health issues involved in maintaining an accurate perception of the future, the world and the self; however, most people seem to have an inflated and unrealistic sense of their abilities, as well as what level of control they are able to exert over their environment and others.
In normal situations, an exaggerated sense of self can have positive outcomes by giving people the self-assurance needed to confront the trials and tribulations that occur on a daily basis. For instance, according to Taylor and Brown (1998), in many cases, an inflated sense of self can promote improved mental health factors such as empathy, the capacity to enjoy happiness and contentment, as well as the ability to secure and maintain meaningful employment. These attributes can therefore be used by teachers to promote improved educational outcomes by drawing on this "ability to engage in productive and creative work" in the classroom.
When used appropriately, these attributes can facilitate the learning process in ways that might not otherwise be possible, yet the potential exists to promote universal success to the point where failure is no longer an option. Insulating young learners from failure may not appear to be the fault of educators, but as Cassel, Chow, Demoulin and Reiger point out, "It should be remembered that student failure, even if only one is involved, must always be associated with teacher failure" (2000, p. 257). This emphasis on avoiding failure at all costs places a heavy burden on educators to provide learning opportunities that conform to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts. Lowering the bar and teaching to the test is always a danger, of course, but the ability to cope with cognitive dissonance and failure is an essential element in the learning process that must be achieved to become a functioning member of modern society (Vohs & Heatherton, 2001).
Coping with Cognitive Dissonance and Failure
Meeting failure head-on should not be an option with cognitive-dissonance theorists, and this tendency does not provide young learners with the opportunities they need to try and fail on their own merit. Cognitive-dissonance theorists maintain that cognitive inconsistencies cause some degree of upset or stress (Pierce & Sarason, 1996). In fact, some cognitive-dissonance theorists argue that elevated cognitive dissonance can even lead to behaviors that are contrary to people's best interests (Cryder, Lerner, Gross & Dahl, 2008). Therefore, because everyone's sense of self-worth and self-esteem is naturally elevated to begin with, providing learning opportunities that are congruent with these exaggerated perceptions becomes especially challenging and satisfying the mandates of the No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disability Education Act require superhuman efforts to ensure every student receives the individualized level of attention needed to achieve this fine-tuned balance between actual achievement and these naturally inflated perceptions of ability (Van Dijk & Brown, 2006). In ome cases, people may avoid dissonance by behaving in ways that are incongruent with the way they actually feel because such behaviors are not violative of their fundamental sense of self (Van Dijk & Brown, 2006).
Abstract of scholarly research source:
The journal article selected for this review (Nielsen & Metha, 1999) concerned measuring perceptions of self-esteem in a group of adolescents using instruments with known reliability and validity, in which the researchers provide a careful report concerning their hypothesis, population of interest, procedures and so forth with respect to the selection criteria required for this paper which are discussed further below.
Purpose: The overarching purpose of the study by Nielsen and Metha (1999) was to evaluate the relationship between adolescents' perceptions of parental behavior and various dimensions of self-esteem in clinical and nonclinical groups.
Intent: The intent of the study was to specifically explore: (a) the antecedent parental behaviors of support (or acceptance), discipline, and autonomy granting and their relationship to (b) dimensions of adolescent self-esteem (Nielsen & Metha, 1999).
Scope: The scope of the study extended to both clinical as well as nonclinical samples of adolescents.
Statement of the Problem: These researchers preface their study with a brief review of the relevant literature concerning the general relationship between parenting styles and self-esteem among adolescents, followed by a more detailed discussion concerning parental discipline and its relationship to self-esteem. Although the research to date has provided mixed results, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that more attentive parenting styles are conducive to higher levels of self-esteem in children, but there remains a paucity of research that has specifically targeted adolescents who are undergoing therapy for mental health conditions (Nielsen & Metha, 1999). Therefore, this study sought to fill in this gap in the existing body of literature by providing benchmark comparisons of the relationship between parenting styles and levels of adolescent self-esteem (Nielsen & Metha, 1999).
Hypothesis: The study was guided by the following hypothesized relationships:
1. The construct of self-esteem is multidimensional; therefore, the study anticipates the dimensions of self-esteem worth and power;
2. The nonclinical sample of adolescents will achieve higher scores on each of the dimensions of self-esteem compared to their peers in a clinical sample;
3. A positive relationship will exist between dimensions of adolescent and parental support self-esteem across samples; likewise, a positive relationship will be identified between parental autonomy granting as well as dimensions of self-esteem across samples; and,
4. There will be a relationship between dimensions of adolescent self-esteem and parental control (discipline) across samples; however, the researchers did not make any predictions concerning the direction this relationship would evince (Nielsen & Mehta, 1999).
Key Concepts: The following key concepts are advanced by the researchers:
1. Self-esteem and self-acceptance have long been viewed as requisites for healthy personal development.
2. Several parental characteristics have been associated with adolescent self-esteem.
3. Most researchers agree that parental affection, or support, is positively related to adolescent self-esteem.
4. A parenting style that avoids the use of guilt, anxiety, and love withdrawal for use in controlling behavior appears to have a positive relationship with self-esteem in children and adolescents. It is believed that such behaviors instill in children a sense of their inherent value (Nielsen & Mehta, 1999, p. 527).